October 2020 wrap up

October is over, the UK is edging toward another lockdown, and it’s time for me to wrap-up another month of reading. Despite thinking I would be reading spooky stuff all month long, it turns out I filled my quota on September or something, because of the thirteen books listed below only two are considered horror; one of them wasn’t scary in the least, and the other was a middlegrade novel. Go me, I guess.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang (2020)

One day, Mother tells Daughter the story of Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit who longed to have a woman’s body and eat children. Soon after, Daughter wakes up with a tiger tail; holes dug in their backyard start to spit out letters from her grandmother; and she slowly falls for another girl, Ben, as they translate the letters together and find out about Daughter’s ancestors and their stories.

A weird book, with a flowery and hard-to-follow writing style, quite gross in parts. The story of this Taiwanese-American family is woven with tales from Taiwanese folklore, which is extremely interesting, but I probably didn’t understand half of it. However, I still managed to get to the end, so… not too bad, I guess?
If you want to read my attempt to make sense of this novel, you can read my review.

Something to Answer For by P.H. Newby (1968)

Townrow is summoned to Port Said by his old friend’s widow, Mrs Khoury. She believes her husband’s death was in fact a murder, and she wants Townrow’s help to find out the truth. Determined to con the old woman into handing all her assets to him, Townrow decides to go along with this farce of an investigation. While his memories start to fail him and he falls in love with a married woman, the president of Egypt is nationalising the Suez Canal, and when the British and French start to retaliate, the situation in Port Said will become more dangerous than Townrow could ever imagine.

I have mixed feelings about this one. While it was an interesting example of unreliable narrator, the protagonist is also quite annoying and the story proceeds without a real plot. We came to investigate a possible murder, but we actually dive deep into the protagonist’s psyche and get out of it confused, and no closer to the mystery than we were in the beginning. The background of the nationalisation of the canal is well done, though, and for once not just an excuse but integral part of the plot.
I read this in my quest to read all of the Booker Prize Winners. You can read more of my thoughts here.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins (2015)

Carolyn has grown up in the library at Garrison Oaks for most of her life, since the day her parents died and she was taken in – together with eleven other children – by a man they all call Father. Each one of them was tasked with learning a very specific fraction of his god-like knowledge, constantly tested and strictly punished by Father when they fail to show enough progress.
Until one day Father disappears, the library is suddenly inaccessible to all of them, and they need to figure out what’s happened and what to do now. Did any of his thousand-year-old enemies finally catch up with him? And what will happen if they can’t get in the library anymore, and all the knowledge inside it is lost to them?
It’s only a matter of time before they start turning on each other for possession of the library, but Carolyn has already accounted for this. And she has a plan.

I loved this book. Is it perfect? No. Is it incredibly well written? Well, it’s quite good, but I could name ten authors who have a better style than Hawkins. But the ideas in this are incredible, and the characters are so well done and interesting, and every time you think you know where the story is going, it takes an unexpected turn, and I just loved it. It’s a weird book to be sure, but one I’d recommend if, like me, you have a thing for unlimited knowledge and the power to change reality.
You can read my review for a bit more info before reading it.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

A young, new governess gets a job and is tasked with the upbringing of Miles and Flora, two orphaned children living in their uncle’s country estate, Bly Manor. But darker things lurk in the foggy countryside and in the dark corridors of the house, and she will do anything in her power to protect the children.

This was underwhelming to say the least. The characters are bland, the ghosts completely useless, and the writing style is annoying and hard to follow. Nothing beats a classic Gothic horror with no horror at all. Sigh.
You can read more of my thoughts here.

Girl in White Cotton (Burnt Sugar) by Avni Doshi (2019)

Antara’s mother has Alzheimer. They’ve always had a strained relationship, but now that her mother’s grasp on reality is slipping, Antara starts reliving her past, searching for that thread that would allow her to take care of her mother without reservations.
We follow her during her childhood in Pune, first in a guru’s community, then in a catholic boarding school, and after that during her years in Bombay, and a picture starts emerging from the memories: her mother who is both absent and judging, too proud but also mean and spiteful. And as we watch Antara in her daily life in the present, we start to wonder together with her – if she’s really so much different from her mother, after all.

This was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.
Another one I have mixed feelings about. I liked the protagonist’s voice, but as the story went on she became more and more insufferable, and in the end I couldn’t say if I hated her or her mother more. It also became a bit hard to stay interested when the plot was flimsy at best. If you like slice of life and horrible people (?), check it out: it might be the right book for you.
You can read more of my thoughts here.

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker (2020)

Avery is the perfect son, from his neatly combed hair to his shiny shoes, from the perfect grades to his manners; Zib is a wild child, her head in the clouds, her clothes always dirty, her pockets full of pretty stones and acorns. They live on the same street but have never met before, until the day some roadworks force them to find a different path to school, and they meet with a wall that is not supposed to be there. On the other side of it is the Up-and-Under, a land of magical creatures and impossible places, and if they want to go back home, they have to learn how to work together and trust each other.

If you didn’t know, A. Deborah Baker is a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire, and is also a character from one of her latest novels, Middlegame. By the way, go read that book, it’s great.
As for the story, it reminded me a little bit of Alice in Wonderland, a little bit of The Wizard of Oz, but with McGuire distinct writing style – that reminded me of another of her works, the Wayward Children series. By the way, go read those books as well.
Avery and Zib’s story is full of whimsy and interesting characters and details, and even though it reads like a middle grade, I have no doubt that many adults will appreciate it.

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh (2019)

Tobias is tethered to Greenhollow forest, tasked to protect it and the nearby village from an ancient evil that comes back to life every spring – and, from time to time, from fairies or dryads gone feral.
Henry Silver is the new owner of the estate that stands in the middle of the forest, and when his path collides with Tobias’, new feelings sprout in the ancient warden’s heart.

This was a very quiet, very sweet novella. It stirred in me a longing for the woods, for the rustle of leaves and the dripping sound of rain, for the light turned green by the foliage, for the slow life growing underneath. It manages to depict the slow blossoming of love in as little as a hundred pages, while also providing worldbuilding and an interesting plot. I’m not a hundred percent sure about the ending, but given that this is a duology, I’ll read the second one before I give any definitive judgement.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (2002)

A collection of eight short stories and a commentary of the author on each of them at the end. Ever wondered what would have happened if God hadn’t struck the tower of Babel? Or if there was a drug that allowed you to develop superhuman intelligence? What if studying a language could change your perception of time itself?

Some of the stories were mindblowing, all of them were interesting, and if you need some more convincing, go read my review. No spoilers, I promise.

Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)

Circe is the daughter of the titan Helios, god of the sun, and a nymph. She has no magic power of her own, no otherworldly beauty, and her voice is shrill like that of humans. Shunned by her kin, she seeks refuge in human company, until the discovery of her own power brings her to commit a mistake and incur in the ire of Zeus himself – one that will cause her lifelong exile.

Madeline Miller knows how to spin a story. Even though the idea of a protagonist exiled on a little island sounds boring at best, she manages to explore that premise with characters, events, and so much character growth that I never felt like putting down the book. Recommended if you’re looking for a feminist tale set in Greek mythology, especially if you are familiar with it. If you want to know a little more about it, you can read my review here.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (2020)

The City is not a good place to grow up. When her daughter Agnes becomes too sick, Bea lets her husband convince her that their best plan of action is to retire to the Wilderness State as part of a study, together with a small group. The twenty of them have been roaming the Wilderness for years, losing people on the way, trying to survive only with their own abilities and without the help of technology. Agnes’s health has greatly improved, but this life is taking a toll on Bea, and when news of her mother’s death reaches her, she sees a reason to leave everything behind and go back to the City.
But her actions have consequences, and Agnes has to try to make sense of it, while the world around her changes in unpredictable ways.

This is another novel shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Looks like there’s a thing for mother-daughter relationships.
This book was extremely interesting. The characters are all so different, their actions at times extremely confusing. After the first part told in Bea’s perspective, we switch on to Agnes’s and the change is a bit jarring, especially because Agnes is eight years old at that point and her understanding of what happens is different from the reader’s. Aside from the more speculative aspects – namely, the idea that the City has taken over basically everything and there’s this last wild space called the Wilderness State – the novel is an exploration of difficult people and difficult relationships, all in a difficult environment. I found it fascinating, but if you are someone who needs a solid plot and endearing characters to enjoy your reading, then you might want to skip this one.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)

Coraline is just moving to a new flat with her parents. There’s a couple of old ladies who used to be theatre actresses living in the flat below, and a strange man with a mice circus in the one above. There’s also a door that opens on a brick wall, until one night it doesn’t… and Coraline finds what’s on the other side.

This one was a reread for me. It’s October and I needed something both spooky and comforting, so I rewatched the movie and then reread the book. I’ll say I might like the movie more, but I think the undertone of the book is creepier. A middlegrade that probably scares adults more than children. If you don’t know the story yet, what are you waiting for?

Ink & Sigil by Kevin Hearne (2020)

Al MacBharrais is a Sigil Agent. What that means, is that he has an extensive knowledge of inks, sigils, and the task of upholding the regulation of faerie travel on the human plane. He also has a curse that causes anyone who listens to his voice to develop a strong hatred toward him, so he’s forced to communicate mostly through messages or speech apps. When his apprentice dies in a freak accident, he discovers that he was entangled in some kind of criminal activity, and he’s forced to investigate with the help of a mischievous hobgoblin before the situation gets out of control.

This book was fun. The protagonist is a sixty-year-old man with a fancy moustache and a delightful sense of humour, and the worldbuilding is fascinating to say the least. I loved the idea of the different inks for different purposes, of the weird ingredients needed, of the written spells, and Buck Foi – the hobgoblin – was probably one of my favourite characters. The story is never boring or too slow. My only complaint? (Yes, I always have one.) I didn’t know this was urban fantasy, so at the mention of cars, phone apps, hackers and the like I was a little bit dumbfounded. I will absolutely read the sequel though, whenever it comes out.

Ten Arrows of Iron by Sam Sykes (2020)

Sal the Cacophony is still looking for the names on her list, the names of the people who betrayed her so long ago. In exchange for their whereabouts, she accepts to participate in an incredibly dangerous – and probably impossible – heist, one whose repercussions could shake the world.

And I can’t say anymore than this because, you know, spoilers. This is the second volume in the Grave of Empires series, and just like the first one, it is told through alternating parts. We have a sort of frame, told in third person, that introduces Sal almost at the end of her adventure; and then we go back to the beginning of it all, and we follow her in first person as she recalls the events that led her to that point, until the two stories catch up toward the end of the novel. I did enjoy this instalment – almost 700 hundred pages, even longer than the first one – but I have to admit some of the quirks of the book get tiring after so long. Sal has a very distinctive voice, but she is often so over the top that she comes off as annoying at times; and honestly, the novel is 90% actions and battles and aside from a few scenes, the tension is always so high that at some point you become numb to it. Even during the fight scenes, the tension goes from 0 to 100 in a couple of paragraphs, so all the “escalation” that happens after that just ends up dragging the scene.
All of this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book – I truly did, despite everything – just that at times I think it should have slowed down on the action and given the reader some time to process. But it was a fun ride, and I’ll be waiting for the sequel.

So this is it for this month as well! Let me know if you read any of these books and what you think of them, or if you have any recommendation of what I should read next.

Stay safe, and happy reading!

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